It is not often that a historical landmark literally vibrates with youthful energy. The Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House, built in 1903, functions today as a bustling social service agency meeting the community's needs via a food pantry, childcare center and afterschool program.
The Fuller house is located in Area IV, one of Cambridge's most economically depressed neighborhoods. The primary purpose of the house is to serve as a place where children of working parents can go after classes to do their homework and have fun with other children of the same age.
When a visitor entered the house last Thursday afternoon, she was met by young children running up and down the old wooden stairs. Inside, to the left of the doorway, several children were standing around Margaret Myers, the interim executive director of the house, with their necks craned.
"They are getting ready to go to [an African] dance class," Myers explains with an easy smile.
On the wall next to the staircase leading up are photographs of the children watching African dancers in a gym. The staff tries to provide the children with as many diverse experiences as possible. For example, the children had gone to the Spaghetti Club the day before to watch a house staff member who moonlighted at the club as a disc jockey.
Recreational options available to children at the house include an art room and a television and reading room, both located on the second floor. The house's third floor boasts a study room with several computers which, according to Myers, serve as a place for study and for hanging out for the older children who come to the house.
Pictures of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other notable black scientists and activists cover the walls of the house.
The afterschool program currently serves 26 students from around the area.
"More than half of the children are first generation," says Myers. "Many of them are Haitian. We have some from the Carribean Islands, Trinidad, Ethiopia, El Salvador and two from the Barbados."
During the normal school year, children who are part of the house's afterschool program usually arrive at the house at 2:30 p.m. and stay until 5:30, doing their homework, hanging out and eating snacks. Vacation time turns the afterschool program into a daylong affair that begins at 8:30 a.m. and lasts until 5:30 p.m. During this time, the house assumes full responsibility for feeding the students, serving three meals a day.
The house does not take a break in the summer, but instead operates its own summer camp providing kids the opportunity to go on field trips to places such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts or the beach. Generally, children in the house stay for extended periods of times up to several years.
"For the most part, [the kids] are enjoying [the program]," explains Myers as she sits down to rest after the kids have left for dance class at 4 p.m. "I mean, the kids would rather be at home with Mom and Dad, but when [both parents] have to work, children have to come to group care. Area IV has a lot of economic pressures. The Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House is in a neighborhood in Cambridge which is most densely populated and economically challenged."
Area IV is so densely populated in part because of previously existing rent control laws which once made rents in this neighborhood the lowest in the city. This past year, rent controls were abolished, and rents for homes have been escalating since, threatening the welfare of economically-disadvantaged families.
"The rents are the lowest here," says Myers, "but that's going to change. This whole neighborhood is going to change. [Stores] are closing up, and many families are doubling up and living together."
With the loss of rent controls, which are only part of a series of welfare reforms, the house will likely play a role of special importance, but Myers is uncertain what this new role will entail.
"Between welfare reform and loss of rent control, we don't know what's going to happen in the future," Myers says.
In addition to the day-care center and the after-school program, the House contains a food pantry, which approximately 1,500 people in the area use.
"We are already overused," said Myers, referring to the projected effect of welfare reform on the food pantry. "We are a supplementary food pantry, which means that we can give two bags of food to a family once a month. Two bags of food is enough for two days.
"We bring in 2,000 pounds of food each week and give it away," she says. "We're already stretched to almost the breaking point. But that's almost always the case with the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House. We're a house, not an institution."
Just like any other non-profit public service organization, the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House is deeply dependent upon grants and donations.
Its main sources of funding for the day-care center and the after-school program are the state Department of Social Services, Department of Education and the Kendall Community Group.
The food pantry, on the other hand, is supported by Project Brad, a large state program that organized the Walk for Hunger and donates money to buy food for the pantry.
The Department of Agriculture aids through a supply of commodities such as canned vegetables and beef.
Another source of food for the pantry is the donation of salvaged food and canned products which stores cannot sell either due to physical defects or because they have passed their expiration date.
"The need is always much greater than what the resource is," Myers says. "We have a very small budget, though. We have a $200,000 per year budget. We have four or five staff people and an executive director who gets paid $36,000 a year. We get some support from grant makers, and people give $3,000 or $4,000 for summer camps, etc. We survive off of that."
In addition to providing children with a fun, safe and intellectual environment, the house also seeks to strengthen and empower the children emotionally through activities such as African dancing.
"We live in a society which doesnt make people feel good about themselves," said Myers. "[The house] gives [the children] an opportunity to develop self esteem. There also is emotional development such as learning how to control yourself. [Part of the reason why we succeed is because] the kids arent [at the house in our care] just for two or three hours. We have them for two to three years, so we can do a little each day.